EIGHT months after warning that the Church was “dying” on urban estates, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has welcomed the “enthusiasm” expressed for turning the decline around.
“There’s a buzz around the issue”, he said on Tuesday. “Bishops and archdeacons have expressed support, and there’s a greater confidence among estates clergy.”
Last week, he was the keynote speaker at the first “Hope for the Estates” event in the diocese of Leeds, organised to “strengthen and support ministry in some of our most deprived parishes”.
In February, Bishop North told the General Synod that the Church was abandoning the poor, having taken a “preferential option for the rich” (News, 19 February). The Church on estates was dying, he said, “and it’s dying very quickly”.
This week, he said that, although enthusiasm was encouraging, “what we need to see is some action, and there is bit of genuine struggle about what we do, what the first step should be.”
The group dedicated to estates evangelism — a strand of the Renewal and Reform programme — is charged with finding the answer. Bishop North chairs this group, which will meet for the first time in November. Quick results should not be expected, he said.
“In the ’80s, urban ministry was the place to be. We have lost it in the last 20 years, and I think it is going to take at least ten to get back to where we want to be. It takes a long time to prepare leaders and to change resources allocation. What I think can change overnight is a kind of enthusiasm for it.”
This might include more clergy being willing to serve on estates, he said, and lay people feeling more confident in their ministry there. He praised the Leeds event, noting that there was “a much more confident atmosphere around many estates clergy at the moment, who are feeling that the wider Church is hearing their voice. . . There was very little moaning, and huge amounts of energy and focus.” Networks of estates clergy are growing up around the country, he reported.
Bishop North is working alongside the Director of Mission & Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, Dr Malcolm Brown, on the urban estates programme.
On Wednesday, Dr Brown wrote a blog setting out the vision for this work, warning that: "We need to overcome the perception that ministry and mission on estates is a dead end."
He wrote: "In a church that wants to be a Christian presence in every community, our missiology cannot be about sowing only on the soil that will yield an easy harvest, but enabling the seed sown on difficult terrain to be as fruitful as possible. In short, are we a church that behaves like a bank, pulling out of areas where the profit margin is deemed to be low, or more like the Post Office which maintains its universal service to everybody wherever they live?"
Both estates and rural villages held great potential, he argued: "There is a fundamental, if sometimes latent, shared conception of community into which the church’s gospel of shared discipleship can speak resonantly. There are potentials for evangelism in places where the privatised individualism of our age has not completely triumphed – places where people know their need of one another."
Ministry on estates required both evangelism and social change: "Unless and until we find ways to build up the numbers of faithful people on estates, the goal of being a Christian presence in every community will be elusive."
A consultation day on urban-estate mission was held at Bishopsthorpe in March. In his keynote address, Bishop North highlighted the discrepancy in the sums spent by the Church on ministry — £8 per person nationally, but £5 on estates — and warned that “ministry to the poor is increasingly being seen as a luxury that . . . we can no longer afford.”
This week, he said that the new “bias to the poor” in the allocation of money to the dioceses “should help”, but urged dioceses to “take pro-active steps” to ensure that it reached the poorest parishes. “I am concerned that, in those dioceses where there is increased funding, too much will be lost in the general budget to make a significant difference to the estates parishes.”
Dr Brown confirmed in his blog that work was underway with the Church Commissioners to ensure that estates would "find their place" in the new fundings streams, and argued that "relatively small sums . . . can make a disproportionately large difference."
The creation of a "centre of excellence for estate ministry" at a theological training institution was also under consideration. There was much to learn, he said, from those already working on estates: "They are living out a ministry that proves the Church of England to be the church for all England, challenging the defeatism that would have us withdraw to our middle-class fastnesses and – if we can find the grace and wisdom to learn from them – modelling the kind of evangelism that can transform lives and communities anywhere where the context appears stony and a truly plentiful harvest may not be measured in numbers alone."